FAYETTEVILLE -- Fayetteville could have a program within the next few years that allows anyone to pick up a city-owned bicycle wherever it's parked and use streets, bike lanes and trails to get around town before dropping it off.
Mayor Lioneld Jordan in his annual State of the City address last week said he plans to work with the University of Arkansas to develop the program. Dane Eifling, the city's bicycle programs coordinator, said the city could have 100 bikes available whenever the program begins, outpacing similar projects in Northwest Arkansas.
To learn more about Fayetteville’s efforts to become bicycle-friendly, find maps of routes through the city and more, go to www.fayetteville-ar.gov/1369/Bike-Fayetteville.
If Fayetteville can put the program together, it would join a global trend that has soared in recent years, according to The Associated Press and bike share companies. Many of the details are undecided, but Eifling said an annual membership fee for Fayetteville's program could provide a bicycle at one-tenth or less of the cost of a new one. Meanwhile, the program would also cut traffic congestion and pollution, help residents connect with each other and get more people interested in cycling, he said.
"The ramifications of people getting out of their cars has huge economic benefits," Eifling said. "Right now, we are just in the exploratory phases and trying to organize some support around the idea."
The learning curve
A bike share program would be one move in the city's effort to be more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly. A network of trails threads through Fayetteville and to its neighbors, and more miles are expected to be built this year. The City Council last year also changed the rules for cyclists on roadways to make them safer and easier for cyclists and motorists alike to understand.
Bike sharing has potential problems. The university and Bentonville both encountered frequent thefts or losses of bikes in their programs.
Bentonville began its bike sharing in 2005, starting with 16 bikes from the Police Department's collection of unclaimed stolen items. Within two weeks, all but one were gone. The program folded by 2009, said David Wright, the city's parks and recreation director.
A rental option at Bentonville's Downtown Activity Center replaced the program a couple of years later. About 45 city-bought bikes of all sizes are available for $10 a day. They're rented out about 500 times a year, and none have been stolen, Wright said.
"I think the biggest thing is we know who's on every bike," he said, adding the city destroys people's information after they return the bikes.
A program starting today might not have the same trouble, Wright added.
"Our trail systems are different today than they were eight years ago when we did that program," he said. "I think the culture is different than it was when we first started making trails."
The university's eight-year-old Razorbikes program refurbishes abandoned bikes that can be used on and around campus by any student or employee who signs up and gets the code to unlock them. The program has about two dozen at a time, said Andy Gilbride, an education specialist with university Transit and Parking.
About 10 or 15 of the bikes disappear each year, he said, but there's an endless supply of new ones, and the university will pick up any spotted around town.
"We don't know who uses the bikes, because it's kind of like an honor system," Gilbride said, adding the same system probably wouldn't work city-wide. "It's different having a university community that we work with than it is with the general public."
Fayetteville's program would keep people accountable while possibly adding more modern features, Eifling said. Companies such as BCycle in Wisconsin and Social Bicycles in Kansas sell specially designed bike-share models that have GPS tracking, can only be used by system members and can't easily be pawned, he said. People can be charged an extra fee if they travel outside city limits as well.
"The bikes are kind of like a smartphone," Eifling said. "So theft or disappearance of bikes by and large is just a nonissue with these kinds of bikes."
Location tracking would also help people find the bikes online or with a smart phone app, Eifling said. The city might also have a few main spots where people can count on finding a bike.
The costs of such programs around the country reach into the millions of dollars; Chicago brought in 3,000 bikes for almost $20 million, and Washington, D.C., created a 1,200-bike program for about $7 million.
But on the scale of Fayetteville's 100 bikes, that cost goes down to about $600,000, which includes costly special parking stations Eifling says wouldn't be needed with Fayetteville's size. Federal grants can cover 80 percent of the price as well, he said.
Based on other systems, membership fees could range from a few dollars a day to between $25 and $75 a year, Eifling said. Some cities offer lower fees and options to pay cash for people with low-incomes or without a credit card.
Once it's in place, the system could help help cover the "last mile" problem, the gap between public transit routes and a rider's ultimate destination, such as a job or restaurant, Eifling said. Less space could go to parking. People might be nudged into buying their own bikes, too.
"I think that it is a fantastic idea," said Sarah Marsh, alderwoman for Ward 1 and a member of the city's Active Transportation Advisory Committee. The system could create "park once" destinations, she said, where people can drive to one spot then go to shops and restaurants by bike. City planners are trying to steer development in this walkable direction.
Fayetteville needs to speed up its trail-building to meet the need, Marsh said. Local and national cycling advocates have pointed to the need for more paths and trails for bikes around town to help cross Interstate 49 and other busy roadways.
Alderman John La Tour of Ward 4 said he dislikes the focus on walkability and getting cyclists on roads, saying they're safest away from traffic. The city shouldn't be afraid of growing or spreading out, he said.
"Build more trails, or just improve the trails we have -- I think our trail infrastructure is sufficient," La Tour said.
Still, if the program goes through, La Tour suggested a deposit of $20 or more that riders would get back after they return the bikes.
"We have to have sufficient incentives to bring the bikes back, or we'll just find them strewn around the city," he said. "Remember, when you give away a service, the service is not valued."
After working out details with the university's help, the next step will probably be a bidding process for bike vendors, Eifling said. Then would come the application for federal money. A transit agency such as the university's or a nonprofit would probably oversee the program with city support, he said.
NW News on 01/24/2016